Twitter’s political ad ban won’t stop politicians getting their messages out

It’s the end of political ads on Twitter.
It’s the end of political ads on Twitter.
Image: Reuters
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Twitter’s announcement last week that it would ban political ads on its platform drew both support and criticism. The company has yet to flesh out its policies—it said it plans to do so by Nov. 15—and it’s currently unclear how the decision will impact the hundreds of candidates running for office, political action committees, think tanks, and non-profits that rely on Twitter ads to get the word out. These groups rely on digital ads to build membership lists, field donations, and reach supporters. Critics of the move argue it would disproportionately impact newcomers and down-ballot races who may not attract the same level of exposure as incumbents or those in national races.

But the reality is that many smaller races turn to Facebook and Google for their digital advertising. “Twitter is just not used very much in local political advertising,” said Mark Jablonowski, managing partner of targeted political advertising firm DSPolitical, which has worked on numerous local and state races over the years. Jablonowski told Quartz that the number of advertising slots available, coupled with Twitter’s comparatively small user base, make it a difficult place for local candidates to advertise. Twitter said that it generated less than $3 million in ad revenue from the 2018 US mid-term elections—the majority of which came from three national-level candidates.

There’s evidence that suggests a Twitter presence can result in a surge of donations for unknown candidates, even favoring newcomers to incumbents. One 2016 Columbia University study found that Twitter raised donations for new politicians, but less so for experienced ones. Weekly aggregate donations for new politicians increased by at least $5,773 after they joined Twitter, according to the study. But the study didn’t focus on promoted tweets—where people pay to increase their reach on Twitter—but rather, looked at politicians’ overall tweets. “For a newcomer, it is cheap to open an account on Twitter, and information dissemination through online word of mouth is possible at a relatively low cost,” the researchers wrote.

Since the summer of 2018, Twitter has required political advertisers and what it calls “issue-based” advertisers to make certain information available to the public through its Ad Transparency library. This includes information on who or what group paid for an ad, how much they paid for it, how many impressions it generated, and what demographics were targeted.

Political advertisers range from candidates for office, political parties, and PACs (political action committees). There are 246 certified political advertisers on Twitter, and they include groups such as the Tennessee Republican Party, the Jewish Democratic Council, speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign and the Ditch Mitch Fund.

Given Twitter’s role in shaping news coverage and political discourse, it’s easy to forget that a small percentage of voters are actually on the platform. Twitter recently stopped reporting the number of daily users it has (at last count, it was about 321 million), instead opting for a metric that measures how many daily users it has that the company generates revenue from, of which it has 145 million. That puts it more or less in the same league as Snapchat (which has 210 million daily users), but far below Instagram Stories (500 million) and Facebook (1.62 billion). A Pew study estimated that around 22% of US adults use Twitter, and its user base tends to skew younger and more Democratic.

“Twitter’s main selling point was its ability to reach plugged-in insiders. We’ll need to look to other niche outlets to reach these key audiences,” wrote Amy Gonzalez, president of Blueprint Interactive, a digital ad strategy firm whose clients include Planned Parenthood and progressive group Indivisible.

Democratic political candidates spend the most on Twitter ads, OpenSecrets reported earlier this year. But even among Democrats, spending on Twitter is relatively small compared to the vast ad dollars that go to Facebook and Google. Of the top 2020 Democratic challengers, only a single candidate who remains in the race, Kamala Harris, spent more than $1 million on Twitter ads. Appropriately, many of the paid tweets concern the California senator’s campaign to get Donald Trump banned from the platform itself. Beto O’Rourke, who dropped out of the presidential race on Nov. 1, was also one of the biggest spenders, buying up more than $1 million in promoted tweets asking supporters for donations.

Notably, Trump has not paid to promote any of his tweets from his official @POTUS account. But the president’s re-election campaign is outspending every Democratic candidate on Facebook.

Twitter promises more eyeballs for promoted tweets, allowing advertisers to target specific demographics or regions. But its tools don’t always guarantee success. One campaign for presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg that consisted of three tweets, paid for by Buttigieg’s campaign, garnered 84,000 impressions, which is the number of times it showed up in an individual’s timeline. One of the paid tweets was only retweeted eight times. Compare that this organic tweet containing footage of rally highlights from Buttigieg’s personal account, which has gathered more than 240,000 views and 1,800 retweets.

But beyond individuals running for election, Twitter’s new policy will also affect ads run about political issues, such as climate change, women’s reproductive health rights, and immigration policy.Critics, including Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and senator Elizabeth Warren, have pointed out that Twitter’s ad policy could cut down on the ability of labor-rights groups and climate change organizations to make their case. Others have noted that Twitter has been vague about what constitutes an “issue.” The 669 groups certified by Twitter as “issue advertisers” are in a separate category from political advertisers, and run the gamut from entertainment networks like HBO to think-tanks like Freedom House. Pro-fossil fuel groups like the American Petroleum Institute, Heartland Institute, and Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation are on the list. So are the NARAL Pro-Choice and the Heritage Foundation. Comedy Central is even registered as one of Twitter’s issue advertisers, for promoting a spoof hotline by The Daily Show with Trevor Noah that allowed callers to simulate a “perfect call” with Donald Trump.

How exactly “issue ads” will be policed remains to be seen (we may hear more on Nov. 15), but some issue-based groups aren’t overly concerned.

NextGen America, the climate action group founded by presidential hopeful Tom Steyer, was one of the biggest spenders on Twitter ads in 2018, buying up more than $183,000 worth of promoted tweets for voter outreach.

Tegan O’Neil, NextGen America’s digital communications director, told Quartz that the organization’s goals with its Twitter ads was to simply echo the ads it was already serving on other platforms, creating a “surround sound” effect. “Twitter ads, on their own, are extremely unlikely to persuade or mobilize voters, and would never be a stand-alone ad strategy,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil added that NextGen America’s best-performing Twitter ads were promoted tweets by NextGen organizers, rather than promoted tweets from its national account. Ads that appeared to be organic tweets from an actual human’s personal account garnered 300% more engagement than normal Twitter ads.

When Twitter’s political ad ban goes into effect, NextGen America plans to partner with influencers to spread their message. “By partnering with influencers and micro-influencers, including on Twitter, we’re making sure people are being reached where they’re already at online—instead of relying on ads,” O’Neill said. NextGen has already worked with influencers on Instagram, but it’s unclear whether such partnerships with will comply with Twitter’s new ad policy. Twitter told Quartz that the its full policy hasn’t been defined yet, and said to “stay tuned” for Nov. 15.

Candidates like Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have taken a page from brands and turned to influencers to spread their campaign message, The Wall Street Journal reported. The “Yang Gang”, Yang’s online meme army, is spread across Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. Yang earned 95% of the $1.7 million he raised from individual donors in April after a single appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, according to Business Insider.

Smaller interest groups that have invested less in Twitter ads have less to lose. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for example, has spent less than $100 on promoted tweets, even though they’ve proven useful. “AAAS has sometimes used Twitter ads as part of a social media strategy to encourage people to register for events, such as the AAAS Annual Meeting and Family Science Days, apply for a fellowship, or nominate for an award,” the association’s chief communications officer Tiffany Lohwater said. “These campaigns have been successful in reaching new audiences.”

But the group tends to prefer Facebook’s larger user base for its advertising. “AAAS advertises on Facebook, and we typically opt for Facebook’s larger ecosystem which means ads may also appear on Instagram,” Lohwater added.

The National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund spent over $8,000 on tweets to promote its interview series with 2020 presidential candidates, as well as voter engagement for transgender voters. But the center’s media relations manager Gillian Branstetter says the bulk of the group’s engagement doesn’t come from paid campaigns. “We have largely relied on organic growth and earned media for our social media engagement,” Branstetter said.

Branstetter said she doesn’t believe that losing access to paid Twitter ads will be a setback to NCTE’s 501c4 group. And contrary to the current debate surrounding both Twitter and Facebook’s approach to political ads, she doesn’t see misinformation in political ads as “the core problem.” Rather, it’s the lies that spread on both platforms for free.

Transgender individuals, Bransetter said, have been increasingly the focus of disinformation campaigns by websites like Breitbart, The Federalist, The Daily Signal, and organizations like The Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. In order to address those lies, she says stronger action would be needed from platforms to combat such misinformation.

“Politicians do not need to lie about us then pay to have those lies boosted—an entire industry is lying about us for free,” Branstetter said.